Star Wars: Battlefront, After years of disappointment, the series finally strikes back

Few games come more freighted with expectation than DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront reboot, the firstborn of EA’s ten-year partnership with Lucasfilm and Disney. For starters, this will be the first heavyweight Star Wars title since Disney acquired Lucasfilm and terminated a number of troubled but promising projects, among them Star Wars 1313 and First Assault, as well as LucasArts’ development arm. DICE must also reckon with Episode VII, due out the following month, which is surely aiming to wash away all memory of the prequel trilogy. So this  Battlefront  must set the tone for the new film while pulling its own series out of a tailspin, a storied hiatus that has lasted a decade on home consoles.

It’s no surprise, then, that the developer is playing things safe. Where its predecessors straddled the original and prequel trilogies, pitting droidekas and Separatist cruisers against Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers, DICE has limited itself to the gadgets, events and setpiece battles of Episodes IV–VI. All are painstakingly recreated, the beneficiaries of access to the old props, locations and effects. The multiplayer maps (DICE will say only that there are more than eight) jump from the glittering desolation of Hoth to the canyons of Tatooine to the dense redwood forests of Endor. We’ve seen a pre-alpha in-engine version of the latter in motion, running on PS4, and it’s commendably hard to distinguish from the source material. Speeder bikes wail along stream beds, Stormtrooper armour gleams among individually animated ferns, and AT-ST walkers are that familiar blend of
terrifying and comical.

DICE has employed photogrammetry to recreate the film’s models, whereby photos are taken from key angles, then combined to generate a 3D virtual object. Battlefield’s Frostbite engine has also been updated to support physics-based rendering, so that lighting affects objects dynamically as though they were comprised of real materials. You can pick out the machine brushmarks on the handle of a lightsaber, and the crosshatching on the grip of Han Solo’s pistol. It’s the usual display of high fidelity from DICE, but the stakes have never been higher. As our behind-closed-doors demonstration unfolds at the heart of the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, thousands of cosplayers tramp the halls outside wearing dizzying combinations of paper clay and polystyrene foam. Suffice it to say that should DICE make similar deviations from the hallowed Lucasfilm formula, they will be noticed.

There’s less pressure, however, to cleave to the design of previous Battlefronts, but DICE has made a number of significant concessions to Pandemic’s work, while introducing a few proven ideas from  Battlefield . The onus is once again on gigantic battles the largest modes support up to 40 players, the smallest, eight with extensive use of vehicles. In news that raised a cheer during the game’s reveal ceremonies, you can switch to thirdperson view for a tactical advantage while you’re sheltering behind objects or coordinating a group. Some weapons have scopes, but according to DICE GM Patrick Bach, there’s no ironsights view, a seeming return to a more civilised age of multiplayer shooters, a time before aim down sights became the accepted standard.

Battlefield’s influence is most clearly apparent in Battlefront’s progression systems. XP rewards for headshots, nemesis kills and streaks accumulate below your crosshairs, and weapons or items are unlocked individually in the order of your choosing. There are no classes, however; instead, the new Battlefront puts heavy emphasis on its map power-ups, which include anti-vehicle weaponry, deployable energy shields and the ability to summon a Y-Wing bomber run, much to the displeasure of any nearby AT-AT pilots. But the pick of the litter are the carefully hidden opportunities to respawn as Hero or Villain characters, such as Darth Vader and Boba Fett. The former made his debut at the climax of our presentation, crushing a windpipe with the Force while batting away blaster shots with his free hand. In the words of design director Niklas Fegraeus, a Hero or Villain character is effectively the map’s boss, capable of turning the tide of battle if given adequate support. It’s an intriguing shift towards the asymmetry of a  Left 4 Dead, but series veterans may mutter darkly about Battlefront II and its rampaging Yodas.

Series veterans may also take umbrage at the absence of outer-space maps. There’s dogfighting aplenty, but it all happens within a planet’s atmosphere, the idea supposedly being to avoid too complete a separation between regular gunplay and  battle on high, though a tight schedule and the dark side of DLC may also have played their part. We have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, prior  Battlefront games have treated us to majestic sequences high above the surfaces of Coruscant and Naboo, in which pilots invade hangar bays to dismantle capital ships from within. On the other, DICE’s games are generally at their best when powerful vehicles are pitted against agile, tenacious infantry.
There’s no ironsights view, a seeming return to a more civilised age of shooters
But there’s unequivocal concern over singleplayer, limited at the time of writing to Missions, which are “crafted challenges” based on famous movie moments that support splitscreen or online co-op. Battlefront doesn’t have a traditional campaign and, as we send to press, a DICE producer has confirmed there will be no Galactic Conquest mode, a replayable metagame from the original Battlefront in which the player and an AI general wrestle for possession of the map list, earning tactical bonuses for every planet conquered. If, as it seems, the singleplayer game is limited to Missions, it will be a disappointingly lightweight proposition, and worrisome given the failure of Evolve and Titanfall to popularise the idea of a boxed shooter without a campaign.

The relative absence thus far of realtime terrain deformation is quietly revealing, too. Providing opportunities to knock apart 3D objects for tactical gain is one of Frostbite’s signature tricks, but perhaps Lucasfilm has concerns about the abuse of its famous assets. It’s a pity, because Star Wars has always done a good line in creative destruction (Battle Of Endor log traps aside), and this tech is ideally suited to letting players lop off the bridge of a Star Destroyer as a way to wind up a close-run match. The balance of power that underpins Star Wars: Battlefront appears to be firmly in Lucasfilm’s favour, though, with little sense that DICE has been granted much artistic license. Star Wars has suffered from a surfeit of top-down control in the past; the IP’s new owners could do worse than to loosen their chokehold.

New Horizons
While largely set in well-charted territory, Battlefront does feature a couple of less overplayed environments. One is Sullust, a volcanic planet that is subject to some offscreen diversionary action during Return Of The Jedi’s attack on the part-completed Death Star. Another new map due to be made available as free DLC in December is Jakku, a desert world that crops up in the forthcoming movie. The film’s version is home to a wrecked Star Destroyer; the game will reveal the events that led to that catastrophe. A crash-landing sequence that makes use of Frostbite’s vaunted terrain deformation doesn’t seem out of the question, bearing in mind the success of Battlefield 4 and Hardline’s map-changing ‘Levolution’.

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